The Bonus Army
Dagvin R.M. Anderson
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American Military History and its Historical Foundation
Professor T. Keaney
1 October 2002
In the summer of 1932 approximately 20,000 World War I veterans gathered in Washington D.C. in order to force the early payment of a bonus for their wartime service. They called themselves the Bonus Expeditionary Force (BEF) but were commonly called the Bonus Army. The veterans had been promised a bonus in 1924 to compensate them for wages lost during their service in the army, but this bonus was not to be paid until 1945. Initially the veterans responded favorably to the terms of the bonus as it was the first time government assistance was available to all veterans and was not qualified as to whether or not they were disabled, indigent, or had served in combat. In addition, the economic climate was good, and they had also been granted government-funded health care.1 This positive attitude changed once the Great Depression hit and thousands of veterans were out of work and the government refused to pay the bonus early.
In May 1932 a group of about 300 veterans under the nominal leadership of Walter W. Waters set out from Portland, Oregon for Washington D.C. Their goal was to influence Congress, which was debating the Patman Bill to authorize the early payment of the bonus. More or less spontaneously, thousands of veterans from across the country decided to join the march, culminating in approximately 20,000 veterans, some with families, converging on Washington.
The veterans occupied empty buildings in downtown Washington and also built a shantytown just across the Anacostia River in Anacostia Flats. They made daily trips to the Capitol to demonstrate in support of the Patman Bill and maintained a relatively peaceful camp with a newspaper, mess hall and loose organization. When the bill was finally defeated on June 15th, everyone in Washington expected the marchers to disperse. Instead they remained in Washington with no intention of leaving.
The extended presence of the unemployed veterans fed one of the great fears of the Hoover administration - a revolution of the masses backed by communism.2 Although there was no direct link between the communists and the veterans, who were mostly anti-communist, the communists attempted to capitalize on the march for political gain. Finally on July 28th, President Hoover ordered the removal of the veterans from Washington by force. The police attempted to peaceably remove the veterans, but in an act of confusion, two veterans were fatally shot. This prompted Hoover to call in the army to remove the veterans. Under the command of General MacArthur the army forcibly removed the veterans from the city. MacArthur, however, took the initiative to cross the Anacostia that night and drive all the veterans from the area. During the eviction the shantytown was set on fire and the veterans were forced out in the middle of the night. The army accomplished the eviction without firing a shot or seriously injuring any veterans. The newsreels showing the shantytown afire with the Capitol standing in the background overshadowed this fact, however. 3
The Bonus Army had both short and long term effects on the government and went beyond the primary issue of payment of the bonus. The immediate effects of the bonus army derived from how the government, especially President Hoover and General MacArthur, handled the eviction of the veterans from the Capitol. Many Americans were angry that the government had ordered the army to act against veterans and this backlash affected Hoover's re-election campaign by helping turn public opinion against him. Hoover also lost the support of the VFW and the American Legion, both of which condemned Hoover's action in local newspapers throughout the country. A large number of Americans viewed it as unnecessary and sympathized with the veterans who were not merely bums, but war heroes. Most non-veteran voters viewed the Bonus Army as a test of the humanitarian impulses of the president, which in many people's eyes, he failed. 4
These feelings directly reinforced the larger issue for many Americans that the federal government was responsible for alleviating the suffering of the unemployed workers in the country. Conscription of soldiers by the federal government for World War I created an undeniable link between the veterans and the federal government. The bonus marchers became highly symbolic of the federal government's responsibility for the prosperity of the American worker. It was a short leap for many Americans from the bonus marchers to questioning Hoover's opposition to aiding unemployed workers at large. Shortly after his election Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in an effort to appease the veterans and to reduce the appeal of the down-and-out veteran to other Americans. The bonus itself and the creation of the CCC served as early examples of the federal government providing entitlements for a group of citizens, thereby setting the stage for more sweeping social reform later. World War I veterans were symbolic of the issues and plight of the common man and also provided a link to the federal government which shifted the responsibility of their well being to the federal government for the first time in American history.5
The most direct and arguably to most significant result of the Bonus Army's march on Washington was the creation of the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944, universally known as "the G.I. Bill." In an effort to smoothly ease World War II veterans back into a peacetime economy, and mindful of the discontent of the World War I veterans and the BEF in 1932, President Roosevelt proposed special benefits in July 1943 for returning veterans. The G.I. Bill provided low interest house loans and money to pay for higher education to all veterans regardless of background creating opportunity instead of uncertainty for the thousands of returning veterans.6 This provided lasting social changes for America's middle class as higher education became the norm and helped fuel the economic boom of the post-war era. For the first time the G.I. Bill made wartime service a means of social advancement and also cemented the veteran as a separate social class in America. 7